What the Midterms Meant
Short essays from Persuasion’s writers and advisors.
Sheri Berman: The Big Picture
Perhaps the most anticipated and contentious midterm election in decades has three interrelated takeaways.
First, the governing party tends to suffer losses at midterms, particularly when voters are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country; but this time, the expected “red wave” of Republican victories did not fully materialize.
Second, a key reason for this is that the Republicans ran a large number of extremist candidates who denied or questioned the results of the 2020 election and in many cases, bought into other unfounded conspiracy theories. Most of these candidates did win, which is not surprising given the centrality of election denialism to the contemporary GOP and its success in purging those, like Liz Cheney, who openly questioned this path. Indeed, reflecting how much the Republicans have radicalized, figures like Majorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, who were considered toxic not so long ago, won re-election and are now firmly ensconced in the party. But in some crucial races, election-denialism and Trumpism proved costly, enabling Democrats to hold on in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
And yet despite this, a third takeaway must be the vulnerability of the Democrats. That Republicans were able to run so many extremist election deniers and conspiracy theorists and still do so well, even in states recently viewed as purple like Florida and Georgia, is partially a result of their ability to shift voter attention to other issues—crime, immigration, the economy, education—where Democrats are perceived as weak, out of touch, or even menacing. If Democrats want to strengthen their own hand before the 2024 elections, they need to think carefully about how they can convince a majority of voters that they have viable solutions to the problems that concern them the most.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and an advisor at Persuasion.
David French: The Real Reason the GOP Floundered
As the smoke clears from the midterms, and the Republican Party’s historic failure comes into focus, one thing is clear—election denial cost Republicans. But perhaps not in the way you might think. It’s not that voters necessarily voted against GOP candidates to stop another January 6; it’s that Republicans denied the lessons of their own recent past.
The GOP interpreted Trump’s razor-thin 2016 victory over a historically-unpopular Democratic opponent as the foundation of a winning electoral coalition. But as the record since 2016 makes clear, it was no such thing. In 2018, the MAGA movement lost the House. In 2020, it lost the White House and the Senate. Trump not only lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020—he never even reached Mitt Romney’s percentage of the electorate.
Yet Trumpists ignored this reality. They bullied and silenced internal critics. Always the message was the same: before Trump, the GOP didn’t know how to win. They ignored the fact that before Trump, the GOP controlled the House. It controlled the Senate. It controlled most state governments.
Functioning political parties would look at the electoral wreckage of the Trump years and sprint away from Trumpism as fast as they could. How many Democrats wanted Jimmy Carter to run again after 1980? How many Republicans were clamoring for Bush Sr. after 1992?
But in 2022, Republicans doubled down on a minority coalition. They bullied swing voters right out of the party, scorning them as “RINOs” as they left. And so here they are, staring down the barrel of the worst midterm performance in a generation—a profound failure especially when compared to the historical record of parties confronting an opposition led by an unpopular incumbent.
What’s next? Donald Trump will almost certainly announce that he’s running again. The MAGA movement will coalesce around him and do what it does best—attempt to bully and silence Republican critics. This is a difficult election result to deny, and the GOP needs to remember that the truth will set them free.
David French is a Senior Editor at The Dispatch and an advisor at Persuasion.
Francisco Toro: America’s Sluggish Vote Tallying is a Global Outlier
As I sit here hitting refresh on my browser, I’m reminded that just over a week and a half ago, 124,000,000 Brazilians took some time out of their day to go vote. The polls closed at 5:00 p.m., nationwide. Less than three hours later, at 7:57 p.m., the single body charged with administering the election and electronically counting the vote had tallied more than 99% of the votes cast, and could announce a single, unambiguous result.
It’s been said a million times that America’s odd-ball, county-by-county system for running elections and tallying votes is both a national security weakness and an 18th century relic. What’s not appreciated nearly as often is that virtually everywhere else, national elections are run by national bodies. In Latin America, where ceremonial pomp is engrained and memories of dictatorship are fresh, elections authorities are relatively visible figures. In much of the developed world the work is done by quiet, career-bound civil servants operating under a single, uniform set of rules and heeding the old football-referee principle: the less you’re noticed, the better the job you are doing.
Some countries do have multiple elections agencies—in Montreal, where I live, my name turns up separately in municipal, provincial and federal registers. But what you never see anywhere else that I’m aware of is a system with literally thousands of different administrative bodies all doing the same thing but following different rules in different places. Such delays and such uncertainty are deadly to the credibility of elections, and to the democratic system itself.
Francisco Toro is a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty.
Seth Moskowitz: The GOP’s Big Winner is Ron DeSantis
Although it was a terrible election for the Republican Party overall, it was a fantastic night for one Republican in particular: Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor crushed his Democratic opponent in a victory that was both widespread and deep. In every single county—from those that are young and Hispanic to those that are filled with white retirees—DeSantis dramatically improved upon Trump’s margins from just two years earlier. All in all, it looks like DeSantis will win by an astounding 20 percentage points in a state that, as recently as 2018, was seen as a swing state.
If DeSantis is the clear winner of the night, Donald Trump is the clear loser. A number of the candidates who owe their primary victories to endorsements and support from Trump vastly underperformed expectations. The most notable of these is Mehmet Oz, who lost the crucial Pennsylvania Senate election. But Oz is far from alone. As the results continue to roll in, Republicans will have to come to terms with the fact that their de-facto leader, Donald Trump, likely cost them control of Congress and a number of governor’s mansions.
The split-screen between Trump and DeSantis will have enormous reverberations for the 2024 primaries. Many Republican voters were already starting to consider the possibility of moving past Trump in 2024, and the clear frontrunner to succeed him was DeSantis. Now that Trump’s electoral liabilities have become exceedingly clear, DeSantis is going to look even better. The betting markets have already started to bank on this: on Tuesday, they placed Trump’s odds of winning the GOP nomination at around 45% and DeSantis’s at 28%; today, Trump is at 38% and DeSantis is at 41%.
Of course, these midterm results won’t take Trump out on their own. But one thing is clear: Trump is now an electoral hindrance, something that potential competitors for the 2024 nomination will be able to exploit. Considering his stunning results on Tuesday, DeSantis will be uniquely positioned to prosecute that case. If Republicans really want to win back the presidency in 2024, he can argue, why would they want to nominate a loser like Trump when they can have a winner like DeSantis?
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.
Norman Ornstein: The Problem with Predictions
There was a broad consensus across our media about Tuesday’s elections: a “Red Wave” was ahead, or, as Axios conservative analyst Josh Kraushaar described it, a “Red Tsunami.” Reporters and editors at outlets from the New York Times and Washington Post to television and cable networks took polling information and amplified the implications. Their conclusion: everything was moving in a Republican direction, inflation and crime were the dominant issues, while threats to democracy and the future of abortion rights had faded into oblivion as significant factors.
Oops. All that makes our media among the most embarrassing and biggest losers of the election. What went wrong?
First, they either didn’t understand, or simply rejected, the reality that polls in general are increasingly untrustworthy. Response rates for polls using telephones have dropped to nearly trace element levels. That is for the best polls! This makes it increasingly difficult to scope out turnout. It also means that pollsters have to use methods to try to replicate the demographics of the electorate—the right proportions of Ds and Rs, women and men, Hispanics and Asian-Americans, young and old, and so on. It is not a science so much as an art, and not every artist is a good one. They have to juggle questions such as: Are some voting groups more or less resistant to answering calls from pollsters? Does that distort results?
At the same time, political journalists too often treat all polls as equal, when many are simply shoddy and others, even from top polling operations, can be outliers. That was the case with a New York Times/Siena poll that showed a dramatic short-term change in the preferences of women that made little sense in the absence of an earth-shaking event. But it served to reinforce the Red Wave consensus.
Too many journalists also ignored the fact that a slew of slanted Republican polls, from places like Trafalgar, Rasmussen and Insider Advantage, flooded the zone in October and early November, while more unbiased polling outfits did fewer surveys. It was a strategy that worked in terms of shaping the agenda leading up to the election.
Then there are two other factors to consider. The first is that mainstream media remain ultra-sensitive to charges that they have a liberal bias—and the response, regularly, is to bend over backwards to show they do not. So, by reporting that Republicans would sweep, they avoided having Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson ripping them. The second is that when a consensus develops, the herd mentality takes over. If everyone is saying something, it is safe to say it as well. Then, if you are wrong, well, hey, everyone was wrong.
There is one remaining question. After this embarrassment, will anything change? Will editors like the Times’s Joe Kahn force a rethinking of coverage for the future? If past experience is any guide, the answer is no.
Norman Ornstein, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.
Damon Linker: The Keystone State
As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the country.
That kind of line is often applied by journalists to “middle American” states for the purposes of simplifying the politics of this sprawling, chaotic country. But when it comes to the 2022 midterm elections in my home state, the shorthand fits.
Donald Trump endorsed both of the Republicans running in statewide races this year: Doug Mastriano, who was looking to become governor; and Mehmet Oz, the candidate for the U.S. Senate. The first was a true-believing Trumpian, a QAnon-endorsing conspiracist with ties to the January 6 insurrection and who limited his media appearances to far-right outlets. The second was a carpetbagging TV celebrity with no political experience, surprisingly little charisma, and a shaky grasp of public policy.
I would have been unhappy with an Oz victory, especially if it contributed decisively to Republicans taking majority control of the Senate. But it wouldn’t have shaken me in the way that a Mastriano victory would have, since the latter is an outright lunatic who should be kept very far away from real executive power, especially as it pertains to the certification of election results.
Thankfully, neither scenario came to pass. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro beat Mastriano by 14 points. I’d have preferred 40, but I’ll take it. In the Senate race, meanwhile, Democrat John Fetterman, currently the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor, edged out Oz by roughly four points. That narrower margin makes sense, given that Oz is much less scary than Mastriano, and Fetterman struggled mightily in the race’s single debate because of cognitive impairments following his stroke last spring. Pennsylvania voters watched the Democrat strain to string together coherent sentences in response to straightforward policy questions and still preferred him to Trump’s hand-picked candidate.
That’s the story of the 2022 midterms in a nutshell: The Democrats did well less because they were so wonderful than because their Republican opponents were so awful.
Damon Linker writes the subscription newsletter “Eyes on the Right” at Substack and is a senior fellow in the Open Society Project at the Niskanen Center.
Anne Bagamery: Social Media and Democracy
It took Elon Musk less than a week after buying Twitter to use his new toy to try to influence an election. “Shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic,” Musk tweeted Monday to his more than 110 million followers, a little less than two weeks after he closed on his $44 billion purchase of the social media platform.
It was a sharp departure from the studied public neutrality that tech CEOs traditionally observe. A few days earlier, Musk had helped rev up the MAGA base by tweeting unfounded rumors about the attack on Paul Pelosi. He then quickly deleted the tweet, a U-turn that has still not been explained.
Did any of it matter? Maybe not. The “red wave” of 2022 looks like more of a red trickle, Musk or no Musk.
But ineffectual or not, the episode shows the need to address social media’s uneasy relationship with democracy, a concern that is especially pertinent now that Twitter is facing heightened scrutiny for ties to authoritarian regimes. Senator Chris Murphy has called for a national security investigation into the fact that the second-largest shareholder of Twitter is a company part-owned by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. And Twitter is not alone: Forbes has reported that TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, is planning to use location data collected by the app to track some Americans (though the company has dismissed the report.)
Plenty more ahead, then, to keep democracy-worriers awake at night.
Anne Bagamery is a journalist based in Paris.
Yascha Mounk: Final Thoughts
As the Editor of Persuasion, I have the advantage of writing this contribution after I had a chance to read all the others. Many of the most important points have already been made. David is right that this election is the last nail in the coffin for the idea that Donald Trump has been an electoral boon to Republicans. Seth is right that Ron DeSantis is the real winner of this election. Francisco is right to lament the absurd sluggishness of the vote count. And Sheri is right that Democrats remain extremely vulnerable.
So let me just add three small points.
The first is that Americans have a clear preference for moderation where it is on offer. This is evidenced by the remarkable increase in split-ticket voting. When voters were presented with a (relatively) moderate Republican candidate for one statewide office and an extreme Republican for another statewide office, a significant number of them chose to support the former but not the latter. Perhaps the clearest example of this was the contrast between Brian Kemp, who easily won his race for Governor of Georgia, and Herschel Walker, who is trailing in his bid for Senate in the same state. But split-ticket voting also played a role where Democrats fielded candidates whose ideological differences were more subtle. Indeed, part of the explanation for the results in Georgia lies in the difference between Raphael Warnock, who emphasized moderation and reached out to swing voters, and Stacey Abrams, who ran a more progressive campaign and focused on rallying demographic voting blocks that have traditionally voted for Democrats. A similar increase in split-ticket voting helps to make sense of results in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
My second observation is that outcomes of American elections are, for now, not decided by which party is more popular, but rather by which party is less unpopular. On the eve of the election, polls showed that the most visible Republican leader, Donald Trump, remains extremely toxic: 50 percent of voters strongly disapprove of him, and another 11 percent hold somewhat negative views of him. But politicians from across the spectrum have similar negative ratings, from Republicans in Congress and Mitch McConnell, to Democrats in Congress and Nancy Pelosi.
If the expected red wave failed to materialize in this election, it is therefore because of negative partisanship: many voters weighed their displeasure with Republican attacks on democratic institutions and their fears about complete bans on abortion more strongly than their concerns about Democratic extremism on cultural issues and their failings on the economy. It would therefore be foolish for Democrats to get complacent about these better-than-expected results. The self-sabotage of Republicans allowed them to avoid a painful shellacking this time around; but if they are to build a lasting coalition that can shut out dangerous populists like Trump, they desperately need to fix their own brand.
Finally, early vote tallies and exit polls suggest that one of the most heartening trends in American politics is continuing apace: the racial depolarization of the electorate. Democrats had a reasonably strong night in heavily white suburban districts, a big reason why they held on to many competitive seats in the House. Meanwhile, Republicans had a strong night in majority minority areas, even winning an astounding majority in Miami-Dade. Knowing a voter’s race is becoming less and less useful for predicting their vote. And for all of us who abhor the idea of a country whose political factions are neatly divided between whites and “people of color,” that is an excellent piece of news.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion.
This article represents the individual views of the authors, not those of Persuasion.
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